AFF Suzuki Cup Semi-Final Line Up Confirmed

The semi-finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup have been finalized, after last night’s Group B matches, in which Thailand brushed aside Malaysia 3-0 and Vietnam overcame a goalless first half to beat Laos 4-0.

Thailand, the favourites, will now play Indonesia and Vietnam will play Singapore. This has all been rather predictable, once it turned out the Burmese team were not able to replicate the form they showed last term and Malaysia demonstrated that, despite all their bluster, they remain fundamentally NBG.

It is disappointing that the semi-finals and indeed final (I think the final too) involve two-legged affairs, since this dispels much of the momentum of the tournament and means most of the games are even more defensive than usual. Thailand will keep it tight in Indonesia and so will Singapore in Vietnam. It’s nice for home fans to get their chance to see their teams in action but that does not compensate for the slackening of the tension, in my opinion.

The commentator on the Lao-Vietnam game last night, a guy named Sashi or similar (I could look it up, I suppose) who once score the winning goal for Singapore in a final against Thailand and who appears to play a Trevor Brooking role on the network, observed that some technical aspects had improved in the last two years – for example, forwards better able to hold the ball up when their back was to the goal, but I found it difficult to see much progress. Perhaps Thai efficiency and pressing under Peter Reid is the most noticeable feature. Let us hope the Thai FA treat him better than they did Peter Withe.

Is the Monkey Head the Man to Lead Thai Football Forward?

The recent results from Wimbledon show that at least some Thai athletes are capable of competing at the very highest level. In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the boxing team brought back one medal of each denomination and hopes are quite high for a similar level of success. Women boxers have also been successful in world title fights at the lightest weights, while the Olympics also witnessed victories in the women’s weightlifting competition. Not every sport is going to be successful, of course, given the average build of Thai athletes and the level of support available – but the victory of Spain in the Euro 2008 Championship showed that being shorter and slighter than opponents need not be a critical disadvantage.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that the Thai (men’s) football team has seemed to be going backwards in recent years. The just concluded World Cup 2010 Qualifying Campaign ended in five defeats and one meaningless victory, while the Kingdom was defeated in the final of the last Southeast Asian championships by Singapore – while countries such as Vietnam in particular are showing real promise of involvement. Despite the corruption in Vietnamese football (well, Vietnam as a whole to be honest), the domestic league is quite competitive and nationwide and that is making a significant improvement.

In Thailand, meanwhile, the FA of T have vacillated between appointing foreign and Thai managers of the football team and have not given any of them enough time. Since the reign of Peter Withe, when it really looked like the team could make the next step forward, things have stagnated or actually worsened.

The new manager seems set to be former Everton and England midfielder Peter Reid, widely and rather cruelly known among football fans as ‘Monkey Heid,’ owing to an unfortunate physical resemblance. Reid, it is said, has ‘fallen in love’ with Thailand after some gigs here working for satellite TV, although it is also true that he seemed to have little prospect of getting a new managerial job in the UK. Reid’s managerial career has been mixed (his playing career was excellent). Initial success at Manchester City and Sunderland was not matched at Leeds and Coventry. He has a reputation for playing quite a rigid long-ball 4-4-2 game which seems unsuited for Thailand – unless the FA of T can start naturalizing some tall centre-forwards born overseas – while his reputation for falling out with players appears to be an accident waiting to happen in a system such as is found here. Still, he is old enough to have matured and achieved wisdom as a manager and let us hope that he can identify players willing to play for him and a system under which they can flourish.  

Another Crushing Defeat

With inflation at a ten year high, the Stock Exchange of Thailand taking another big hit yesterday, problems among the police (and also this), as well as doubts that democracy itself can be sustained, let us turn to the world of sport, which so often gives us reason to exalt in honest endeavour and triumph over adversity.

Or not, as the case may be.

Last night Thailand’s bid to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was dealt an almost certainly fatal blow – a 3-2 home defeat to Bahrain means the Kingdom now has zero points from three games, which is nine points behind the visitors. The best that can be hoped for now is to win the three remaining games (not very likely) and hope for the best with results elsewhere (also not very likely). Almost certainly Bahrain and Japan will qualify for the next stage of the competition.

Despite all the money and interest shown in sport, especially football, in Southeast Asia, the quality remains disappointingly low. Last night, Southeast Asian champions Singapore were crushed 7-3 at home by not so mighty Uzbekistan. Yes, Uzbekistan are not a bad Central Asian side (although I thought Kazakhstan had more potential in the long run) but to be swatted aside like this is close to humiliating. Can you imagine Qatar or the UAE (which have similar resources) being beaten at home like this? True, those countries play the typically Middle Eastern style which it destroys the soul to watch with the endless murder of football but that is just sensible deployment of resources (and no, not allocation to the referees).

So why is football so bad here, despite the number of people playing it? First, there is no proper national league. Instead, teams from Tobacco Monopoly, BEC Tero and Bangkok University, among others, contest the league. A national league was launched a few years ago but attendances were so low it stopped after one year – yet it offered genuine opportunities for people to support their home town teams. Perhaps Thais would prefer to support Manchester United instead.

Second, the players are not fit enough, both physically and mentally. Last night, the team played spiritedly enough in the first half but then faded in the second.

Third, inconsistent and short termist management. The coach and the coaching structure are relentlessly changed with no thought to long-term development. A few years ago, Peter Withe was in charge and was making real progress – then he was sacked because the FA refused to pay the rent for his apartment. Since then, regression, no matter who gets the chance to be in charge. Sven-Goran Eriksson would understand this.